Theory in Biosciences

, Volume 129, Issue 2–3, pp 193–201 | Cite as

Human evolution and cognition

  • Ian Tattersall
Original Paper


Human beings are distinguished from all other organisms by their symbolic way of processing information about the world. This unique cognitive style is qualitatively different from all the earlier hominid cognitive styles, and is not simply an improved version of them. The hominid fossil and archaeological records show clearly that biological and technological innovations have typically been highly sporadic, and totally out of phase, since the invention of stone tools some 2.5 million years ago. They also confirm that this pattern applied in the arrival of modern cognition: the anatomically recognizable species Homo sapiens was well established long before any population of it began to show indications of behaving symbolically. This places the origin of symbolic thought in the realms of exaptation, whereby new structures come into existence before being recruited to new uses, and of emergence, whereby entire new levels of complexity are achieved through new combinations of attributes unremarkable in themselves. Both these phenomena involve entirely routine evolutionary processes; special as we human beings may consider ourselves, there was nothing special about the way we came into existence. Modern human cognition is a very recent acquisition; and its emergence ushered in an entirely new pattern of technological (and other behavioral) innovation, in which constant change results from the ceaseless exploration of the potential inherent in our new capacity.


Innovation Evolutionary pattern Symbolic cognition Technological evolution Intelligence Exaptation Emergence 



I thank Nathalie Gontier for the kind invitation extended to me to contribute this additional element to a remarkable symposium publication, and two anonymous referees for comments.


  1. Bouzzougar A, Barton N, Vanhaeren M, D’Errico F, Collcutt S, Highham T, Hodge E, Parfitt S, Rhodes E, Schwenninger JL, Stringer C, Turner E, Ward S, Moutmir A, Stambouli A (2007) 82,000-Year-old shell beads from North Africa and implications for the origins of modern human behavior. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104:9964–9969CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Brown KS, Marean CW, Herries AIR, Jacobs Z, Tribolo C, Braun D, Roberts DL, Meter MC, Bernatchez J (2009) Fire as an engineering tool of early modern humans. Science 325:859–862CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Carbonell E, Bermúdez de Castro JM, Parés A, Pérez-González A, Olle M, Mosquera M, Cuenca-Bescós G, García N, Granger DE, Huguet DR, van der Made J, Martinón-Torres M, Rodríguez XP, Rosas A, Sala R, Stock GM, Vallverdú J, Vergès JM, Allué E, Burjachs F, Cáceres I, Canals A, Díez C, Lozano M, Mateos M, Navazo M, Rodríguez J, Rosell J, Arsuaga JL (2008) The first hominin species of Europe. Nature 452:465–470CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Clottes J (2008) Cave art. Phaidon, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  5. de Lumley H, Boone Y (1976) Les structures d’habitat au Paléolithique inférieur. In: de Lumley H (ed) La Préhistoire française, vol 1. CNRS, Paris, pp 635–643Google Scholar
  6. de Waal F (1998) Chimpanzee politics, revised edition. Johns Hopkins Press, BaltimoreGoogle Scholar
  7. Deacon H, Deacon J (1999) Human beginnings in South Africa: uncovering the secrets of the Stone Age. David Philip, Cape TownGoogle Scholar
  8. Dunbar R (1996) Grooming, gossip and the origin of language. Faber and Faber, LondonGoogle Scholar
  9. Fagundes JRF, Ray N, Meaumont M, Neuenschwander S, Salzano FM, Bonatto SL, Excoffier L (2007) Statistical evaluation of alternative models of human evolution. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104:17614–17619CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Goren-Inbar N, Alperson N, Kislev ME, Simchoni O, Melamed Y, Ben-Nun A, Werker E (2004) Evidence of hominin control of fire at Gesher Benet Ya’aqov, Israel. Science 304:725–727CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Hart D, Sussman RW (2005) Man the hunted: primates, predators, and human evolution. Westview/Perseus, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  12. Hauser MD, Chomsky M, Fitch WT (2002) The faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science 298:1569–1579CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Henshilwood C, D’Errico F, Yates R, Jacobs Z, Tribolo C, Duller GAT, Mercier N, Sealy JC, Valladas H, Watts I, Wintle AG (2003) Emergence of modern human behavior: Middle Stone Age engravings from South Africa. Science 295:1278–1280CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Henshilwood C, D’Errico F, Vanhaeren M, van Niekerk K, Jacobs Z (2004) Middle Stone Age shell beads from South Africa. Science 304:404CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Holloway RL, Broadfield D, Yuan M (2004) The human fossil record, vol. 3: brain endocasts. Wiley-Liss, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Hou Y, Potts R, Yang B, Guo Z, Deino A, Wang W, Clark J, Xie G, Huang W (2000) Mid-Pleistocene Acheulean-like stone technology of the Bose Basin, South China. Science 287:1622–1626CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Klein RG (1999) The human career, 2nd edn. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  18. Lordkipanidze D, Jashashvili T, Vekua A, Ponce de Leon MS, Zollikofer CPE, Rightmire GP, Pontzer H, Ferring R, Oms O, Tappen M, Bukhsianidze M, Agusti J, Kahlke R, Kiladze G, Martinez-Navarro B, Mouskhelishvili A, Nioradze M, Rook L (2007) Postcranial evidence from early Homo from Dmanisi, Georgia. Nature 449:305–310CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Lovejoy CO, Suwa G, Simpson SW, Matternes JH, White TD (2009) The great divides: Ardipithecus ramidus reveals the postcrania of our last common ancestors with the apes. Science 326:100–106PubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. McDougall I, Brown FH, Fleagle JG (2005) Stratigraphic placement and age of modern humans from Kibish, Ethiopia. Nature 433:733–736CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Povinelli DJ (2004) Behind the ape’s appearance: escaping anthropocentrism in the study of other minds. Daedalus 133:29–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Pruetz JD, Bertolani P (2007) Savanna chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes verus, hunt with tools. Curr Biol 17:412–417CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Savage-Rumbaugh S (1994) Kanzi: the ape at the brink of the human mind. Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  24. Schick KD, Toth N (1993) Making silent stones speak: human evolution and the dawn of technology. Simon and Schuster, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  25. Schick KD, Toth N, Garufi G, Savage-Rumbaugh S, Rumbaugh D, Sevcik R (1999) Continuing investigations into the stone tool-making and tool-using capabilities of a bonobo (Pan paniscus). J Archaeol Sci 26:821–832CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Scott GR, Gibert L (2009) The oldest hand-axes in Europe. Nature 461:81–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Swisher CC III, Curtis GH, Jacob T, Getty AG, Suprijo A, Widiasmoro (1994) Age of the earliest known hominids in Java, Indonesia. Science 263:1118–1121CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Tattersall I (2008) An evolutionary framework for the acquisition of symbolic cognition by Homo sapiens. Comp Cogn Behav Rev 3:99–114Google Scholar
  29. Tattersall I (2009) The fossil trail: how we know what we think we know about human evolution, 2nd edn. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  30. Tattersall I, Schwartz JH (2009) Evolution of the genus Homo. Annu Rev Earth Planet Sci 37:67–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Thieme H (1997) Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears from Germany. Nature 385:807–810CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Valladas H, Reyss JL, Joron JL, Valladas G, Bar-Yosef O, Vandermeersch B (1988) Thermoluminescence dating of Mousterian “Proto-Cro-Magnon” remains from Israel and the origin of modern man. Nature 331:614–616CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Vanhaeren M, D’Errico F, Stringer C, James SL, Todd JA, Mienis HK (2006) Middle Paleolithic shell beads in Israel and Algeria. Science 312:1785–1788CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Walker A, Leakey R (eds) (1993) The Nariokotome Homo erectus skeleton. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  35. White TD, Asfaw B, DeGusta D, Gilbert H, Richards GD, Suwa G, Howell FC (2003) Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia. Nature 423:742–747CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of AnthropologyAmerican Museum of Natural HistoryNew YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations